Posts Tagged ‘jack kornfield’

“How do we find our own place in a complex political world,” asks the American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, “and find a way towards peace?”

For some, the way might be a studied indifference, a turning away from politics altogether. For others, it might be engagement: social activism in the cause of peace. But for Kornfield, the appropriate initial response, and a prerequisite for wise and effective action, is first to “stop the war within.” “Our first task,” he observes, “is to make our own heart a zone of peace.”

The great spiritual traditions offer many ways of doing that, but one proven way is the time-honored practice known as Chadō, or the Way of Tea. Rooted in sixteenth-century Japan, this practice has long been associated with Zen meditation. Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), Tea master, Zen practitioner, and codifier of the Japanese tea ceremony, established four basic principles for practicing the Way of Tea. Guidelines for everyday life as well as the shared enjoyment of tea, these principles have endured to the present day.


In Rikyū’s time and for centuries afterward, tea gatherings were held in rustic, sheltered tea huts. Guests walked down a garden path, and, after cleansing their hands and mouths in a stone basin, entered the tea hut by crawling through a small, low doorway. Humbled by this experience, they found themselves in an alcove, where a hanging scroll, chosen by the host and often composed by a Zen master, established the theme of the gathering. That theme accorded with the rhythms of the season, as did the flowers in the alcove, arranged by the host “as they are in the field.”

These aspects of décor contributed to an atmosphere of harmony, both between the human and natural worlds and between the host and guests. As Sōshitsu Sen XV, a descendent of Rikyū and retired Grand Master of the Urasenke School of Tea, explains in his book Tea Life, Tea Mind, “The host interacts with the guest, both thinking of one another as if their roles were reversed. . . . The principle of harmony means to be free of pretensions, walking the path of moderation, becoming neither heated nor cold, and never forgetting the attitude of humility.”


When elite samurai warriors came to the tea gatherings, they left their swords outside. They also left behind their exalted social rank. According to the principle of respect, every person in the gathering is of equal importance. Each possesses his or her inherent dignity and is to be treated accordingly. This principle informs the strict etiquette of the traditional tea ceremony, extending beyond the human to the inanimate environment—the utensils used in preparing the tea; the tea bowls, chosen in keeping with the season. All are to be regarded with openness, reverence, and sincerity. In the words of Sōshitsu Sen, “this principle presses us to look deeply into the hearts of all people we meet and at the things in our environment. It is then we realize our kinship with all the world around us.”


The writer Peter Matthiessen once noted the “fierce cleanliness” of Dai Bosatsu Zendo, the monastery in the Catskills where he practiced Zen. That same spirit applies to the Way of Tea. The garden path must be swept, the utensils kept immaculate. Less literally, the principle of purity applies to the state of mind of the guests, who are enjoined to leave their worldly attachments and the “dust of the world” outside the tea room and practice with single-minded concentration. Together with rigorous cleanliness, physical and spiritual, the principle of purity also implies a meticulous sense of order, both in the immediate environment and in the minds of the host and guests. “When the host is cleaning and arranging the areas that the guests will occupy,” writes Sen, “he is establishing order also within himself.”


Unlike the first three principles governing the Way of Tea, the fourth cannot be attained through conscious effort alone. Rather, the cultivation of harmony, respect, and purity establishes, over time, the conditions in which tranquility of body, heart, and mind is most likely to manifest. “[A] person making and drinking tea in contemplation,” writes Sen, “approaches a sublime state of tranquility.” And, paradoxically, this sense of tranquility is deepened “when another person enters the microcosm of the tearoom and joins the host in contemplation over a bowl of tea.”

Green tea is unique. Its combination of mild caffeine and the compounds known as catechins engenders a state of mind that is at once calm and alert. But whether or not one enjoys green tea, the timeless principles of the Way of Tea have much to recommend them. Called to mind through the course of the day, they can positively influence the way we look at others. Faithfully observed, they can indeed create a zone of peace.


“How do we find our own place: Jack Kornfield, “Dharma & Politics.”

As Sōshitsu Sen XV: Sōshitsu Sen XV, Tea Life, Tea Mind (Weatherhill, 1979), 13-14. For a deeper understanding of Japanese tea culture and its roots in eighth-century China, see Sōshitsu Sen XV, The Japanese Way of Tea: From Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyū (University of Hawaii Press, 1998).





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sk3Although you may not be aware of it, September is National Mold Awareness Month. It is also National Pain, Campus Safety, Child Obesity, Lice, and Menopause Awareness Month. That is a lot to be aware of, and the designated objects vary widely. Common to all these constructs, however, is the term awareness and the assumption that we are agreed on what it means.

In ordinary usage awareness refers to a mental faculty compounded of thought, experience, knowledge, and attention. It is sometimes spoken of in vertical metaphors, as when others purport to “raise” our awareness. It may also be framed in horizontal figures, as when we are admonished to “broaden” our awareness, or in quantitative tropes, as when we attempt to “increase” our awareness of this or that. But whatever metaphors might be at work, the common view of awareness is that of a tool which the sovereign ego, the owner and operator of an autonomous self, can direct or otherwise control. And though awareness, in this view, may comprise functions other than thinking, it is essentially an extension of thinking, which the governing mind can train wherever it sees fit. In September we should turn our awareness to mold, pain, campus safety, childhood obesity, lice, and menopause. Having gathered information about those important subjects, we can then digest that information and take whatever action we deem appropriate. (more…)

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800px-UH-1H_Flying_over_ROCA_Infantry_School_Ground_20120211Last week two Army helicopters flew over the village of Alfred, New York. Their thunder, my wife confided, unnerved her as never before.

In the wake of the mass shootings in Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernadino, fear has become a focus of national attention. In his address to the nation on December 6, President Obama sought to reassure us. “Freedom,” he asserted, “is more powerful than fear.” Perhaps it is in the long run, but for the time being, how can we best address the growing presence of fear in our daily lives? And how can the practice of meditation help us in that effort? (more…)

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Fragrance_Garden_-_Brooklyn_Botanic_Garden_-_Brooklyn,_NY_-_DSC07926In contemporary public discourse, it has become common to speak of “dying with dignity,” especially in discussions of assisted suicide. By contrast, it is rare to find a reference to living with dignity, except when it pertains to the elderly or disabled or infirm. Yet what could be more important to our well-being, one might ask, than living with dignity, whether one is healthy or sick, youthful or advanced in years? (more…)

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William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician

William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician

According to a recent report on the NBC Nightly News, American police have been running stop signs and causing serious accidents, so distracted have they become by the computers in their cars. To address the problem, the Fort Wayne, Indiana police department has installed devices that freeze the computer’s keys whenever the patrol car’s speed exceeds fifteen miles per hour.

This situation may be uniquely ironic, but the underlying problem is hardly peculiar to the police. On the contrary, in the age of the Internet and ubiquitous mobile devices, distraction has become endemic. With so many objects summoning our attention, where shall we direct it? On what objects should we place our minds? (more…)

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Twenty-five years ago, Markus Koch was a defensive lineman for the Washington Redskins. During his third season, he broke his lumbar vertebrae, but he continued to play for three more years. Now in his late forties, he suffers from depression, and when he stands for extended periods of time, his legs go numb.

Recently, Markus Koch reflected on the gap between football fans watching the game at home and the physical experience of the players on the field. To close that gap, he facetiously suggested, players might be fitted with a mouth guard that “registers the impact they’re getting on the field, and at certain g-forces the helmet shell would crack and explode and leak gray matter and blood.” Or, conversely, the fan might be fitted with an adjustable pneumatic suit, which would be “telemetrically linked to a player on the field.” In that way the fan could “experience what the player is going through.” (more…)

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If you have looked hard at a single object, you may have found that an image of the object lingers even after you’ve looked away.

Such is my experience every morning, when I drink green tea from a small porcelain cup. Looking down, I see the cup’s white rim, which forms a perfect circle. Looking up, I see that same circle, now in black, projected against the bamboo rug.  In its main features the image resembles the enso, or Zen circle–a symbol of enlightenment and absolute reality.

Not all images are so benign, nor is their duration so brief. The poet Ezra Pound famously defined the image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” And if that image is laden with emotional content, it may be virtually ineradicable. In her poem “Quai d’ Orleans,” Elizabeth Bishop observes barges on the river Seine, comparing their wakes to giant oak leaves, which extinguish themselves on the sides of the quay. Deepening her analogy, Bishop contrasts the disappearance of the wakes with the endurance of human memories, especially memories of loss. “If what we see could forget us half as easily,” she reflects, “as it does itself—but for life we’ll not be rid / of the leaves’ fossils.”*

Zen meditation is essentially a process of stopping and looking. Amidst the multiple distractions of everyday life, the images in our psyches may well escape notice, but when we sit still, follow our breathing, and have a look at our interior lives, those images often return with a vengeance, bearing their cargo of memories and associations. How, if at all, should we respond to them? What, if anything, should we do?

Perhaps the most reflexive response is to pursue the image: to dwell in the past. Encountering the image of a barge, for example, I might recall the scenes of my childhood, when I sat for hours on the banks of the Mississippi River, watching the barges pass. Pushed by powerful “towboats,” those massive platforms transported steel, coal, and other freight north toward Lock and Dam 13. Viewed from a distance, the barges appeared to be moving slowly, as they rounded the bend and gradually disappeared. But in fact they were moving at a rapid, dangerous clip, and boaters were well advised to stay out of their way. Remembering their bulk and speed, I recall that one of my schoolmates, a third grader named Michael Stone, drowned one night beneath a barge. A few days earlier, I had wrestled with him on the playground.

Such memories haunt us, and it is tempting to pursue them. But to do so is not the way of Zen meditation, whose aim is situate our minds and hearts, vividly and continuously, in the reality of the present moment. The Bhaddekaratta Sutta (Sutra on the Better Way of Living Alone), a guiding text for Zen practitioners, states this aim directly:

Do not pursue the past.

Do not lose yourself in the future.

The past no longer is.

The future has not yet come.

Looking deeply at life as it is

in the very here and now,

the practitioner dwells

in stability and freedom.

The sutra goes on to explain what is meant by “pursuing the past”:

When someone thinks about the way his body was in the past, the way his feelings were in the past, the way his perceptions were in the past, the way his mental factors were in the past, the way his consciousness was in the past; when he thinks about these things and his mind is burdened by and attached to these things which belong to the past, then that person is pursuing the past.

By contrast, when a person thinks about those same things but his mind is neither “enslaved by nor attached” to them, then that person is not “pursuing the past.”**

To think about the past without being enslaved by it is a formidable challenge, but there are ways of meeting that challenge. Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist and renowned Vipassana teacher, advises us to heal the wounds in our psyches by bringing meditative awareness—“that which knows”—to our painful memories. Similarly, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to review the past and “observe it deeply” while “standing firmly in the present.” In that way our destructive memories can be transformed into something constructive. In either case, the method is first to ground ourselves in the present, and second, to cultivate a generous, clear awareness, in which images from the past, however troubling or enticing, arrive and last for a while but do not become objects of obsessive thought. Like barges observed from a river bank, they interest but do not overwhelm us.


* Elizabeth Bishop, “Quai d’ Orleans,” The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux,1984), 28.

**Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life: Discourse on Living Happily in the Present Moment (Parallax, 1990), 6.

Enso (Zen circle) by Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi.

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